Graded on a Curve:
Joni Mitchell,
The Asylum Albums
1971–1975

It is fitting that Joni Mitchell – The Asylum Albums 1971-1975, a four-album box set, is being released at this time. Mitchell’s miraculous recovery from a series of life-threatening health scares and her return to performing at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 2022, have rekindled interest in her remarkable career. Tentative plans for possible multiple live dates have been rumored, as have possible new recordings.

For the past several years there have been a plethora of reissues, primarily previously unreleased live tracks and a host of demos and other releases, under the moniker of the Joni Mitchell Archive Series. This new box is very much a follow-up to the four-album The Reprise Albums 1968-1971 box released in 2021, that included her first four albums Song To A Seagull (1968), Clouds (1969), Ladies Of The Canyon (1970), and Blue (1971). Those four albums primarily represented Mitchell’s early folk-based recordings, that gradually became slightly more expansive, culminating in her iconic, quintessential singer-songwriter watershed Blue album.

This new box set picks up where Blue left off, but Mitchell’s shift to Asylum was significant. While Reprise was a home for artists like Mitchell, fellow Canadian Neil Young and others, Asylum, launched by David Geffen, was the kind of artist-centric boutique label that could offer Mitchell the creative space and special attention to her music that she craved. At the time, Asylum was the de-facto home of California singer-songwriter-based pop-rock and laid-back LA cool. Geffen signed the Eagles and Jackson Browne to his label and poached Linda Ronstadt from Capitol.

With For the Roses in 1972, the first album in this new Asylum box, Mitchell made a major leap from Blue in consolidating and expanding on her considerable talents. While Blue was a brilliant, raw and stark exploration of sometimes fragile emotions, For the Roses was a more confident affair. It also laid the groundwork musically for what was to come. Songs like “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” foreshadowed the jazzbo hipster explorations to come. “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio” displayed Mitchell’s ability to write catchy songs that went beyond “Both Sides Now,” “Chelsea Morning,” and “Woodstock,” which would be hits for others, and “Big Yellow Taxi” and “The Circle Game,” which were all her own. “Blonde in the Bleachers” also showed Mitchell to be no wallflower and rather someone who could kick up her rock and roll heels with anyone.

Her next album, Court and Spark, in 1974, was a milestone release and catapulted Mitchell to the height of musical stardom. Is it a better album than Blue? That’s hard to say. It was both a more accessible and more popular album and one that revealed even further Mitchell’s vast talents and ability to draw not just from folk, rock, and pop, but even more than ever from jazz and art song. It included such hits as “Help Me” and FM staples like “Free Man in Paris” and “Raised on Robbery,” a rousing rocker in the vein of “Blonde in the Bleachers.”

With the success of Court and Spark, Mitchell set out on tour in 1974 at the peak of her popularity. Various performances from the tour would result in the double live album Miles of Aisles released in 1974. Further pursuing her new jazzier leanings, she went out on tour with a band that included some bona fide ’70s studio jazz pros, including Tom Scott and guitarist Robben Ford. The group, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, would even have its own opening stint on the tour. Playing mostly amphitheaters, Mitchell still retained the musical acoustic folk base of her music up until For the Roses, but Scott’s reed work provided melodic support and sometimes more textured jazz nuances. The double album is a reminder of the plethora of double live albums that were in abundance at this time, during the salad years of ’70s rock and pop.

The final album in this box is The Hissing of Summer Lawns released in 1975. The album was a major turning point for Mitchell and remains one of her most controversial and polarizing albums. After the huge commercial success of her quite accessible Court and Spark album, Mitchell pushed further into jazz and also continued to experiment with exotic rhythms. While “In France They Kiss on Main Street” continued in the vein of “Help Me,” the album’s second track, “The Jungle Line,” featured the Royal Drummers of Burundi from Africa, on a song with eerie Moog keyboards and syncopated drumming unlike anything heard on pop rock albums outside of the album Live! From Fela Kuti, released in 1972, which featured Ginger Baker. Mitchell’s African explorations also presaged Paul Simon’s Graceland by eleven years.

For The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell recruited an even larger group of LA studio jazz cats (including the Jazz Crusaders) and jazz giants such as Bud Shank. Also, like on Court and Spark where she covered a jazz song (“Twisted” by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross), Mitchell covered another Lambert, Hendricks and Ross song, “Centerpiece.” The next pop artist to so fully embrace jazz and recruit a group of jazz players as esteemed was Sting with his first solo albums, the studio album The Dream of the Blue Turtles in 1985 and the live Bring On the Night in 1986. Prince, in promoting his follow-up to Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, released in 1985, said in an interview with Rolling Stone that The Hissing of Summer Lawns was “the last album I loved all the way through,” by anyone.

The songs on The Hissing of Summer Lawns veered far from Mitchell’s sometimes fragile confessional singer-songwriter music and were sophisticated, often fully-drawn character studies. These songs were confident works very much from a female point of view. And that may have been what turned off the mostly male rock journalism elite, many often steeped in borderline misogyny, relegating artists like Mitchell to the category of chick singer, as hard as it is to believe that. The Hissing of Summer Lawns concludes this box.

While the unfounded criticism of The Hissing of Summer Lawns must have stung, Mitchell was not deterred. Although her next album, Hejira, in 1976, was equally as adventurous as The Hissing of Summer Lawns, it was tempered by themes and some music that seemed to harken back to what Mitchell’s critics felt was more her natural style. From there, though, she became even more experimental with the sprawling double album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, which her record company seemed to unceremoniously dump into record stores at year’s end in 1977. But even more than The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mingus, her collaboration with Charles Mingus released in 1979, was almost unanimously panned, with short-sighted rock critics arguing that it was blasphemy for her to work with a jazz artist like Mingus. These three albums will no doubt comprise the next box, which will bring to a conclusion her Asylum releases.

Like the Reprise box, the four albums in this reissue are housed in a sturdy slipcase with new cover art by Mitchell. The albums are exact replicas of the originals, with period Asylum labels and gatefolds. The 180-gram vinyl albums, remastered by Bernie Grundman, come in poly-lined sleeves. The sound is superb, and hearing these master classes in LA studio artistry at its best makes for a visceral and memorable listening experience. While the previous Reprise set included an essay by Brandi Carlile and a new mix of the entire album Song to a Seagull, this new Asylum set does not include any new mixes, and this time Neil Young provides the essay. Both boxes are limited to 10,000 copies.

Digging deep into these recordings is to hear a peerless musical artist at what might be her peak. While Mitchell has always been regarded as a great songwriter, listening to these albums spotlights how brave she is to conquer new musical forms and to do so with such dexterity and assurance. For a truly overwhelming musical experience, play all the albums of the Reprise and this Asylum box straight through and be awed by a popular musical artist no one can touch.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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  • Richard

    Exactly so. Joni’s first 8 studio albums, through to Hejira, comprise the most astounding, varied and exquisite body of work by any singer-songwriter bar – possibly – Dylan and Cohen. It was thrilling to follow Ms Mitchell all through the 1970s, as these albums came out.

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